Bloodied but breathing
Tonight, exactly a year to the day from the terror attacks on the Sri Lankan team in Lahore, Rashid Latif will hand out what is the highest prize money ever seen in Pakistan, to the winners of the Karachi Champions League (KCL).
It is not even for a domestic, city-based tournament. The KCL is even more local than that; the KCL is a Twenty20 event for the top Karachi club sides. The tournament was run with the city government's help, across much of Karachi, and televised. The marketing was smart, local and direct, aiming to call out localities and mohallas, and so it was avidly followed; good crowds turned up most days and during the final last week, at least 10,000 came to watch. It was a fair old mela - men, women, children, families, VIPs and local celebs sitting till well past one in the morning, on a weeknight, all to watch a club match in which the biggest names were probably Mohammad Sami and Faisal Iqbal.
Mostly the tournament was impeccably organised and it attracted more people to club matches than in the heyday of club cricket in Pakistan, from the 50s right through to the 70s. The winning club, Airport Gymkhana, will get Rs 10 million, unprecedented finance for a club. Runners-up and semi-finalists will not complain either.
Latif, as ever, isn't thinking small. The city government, with whom he is well-placed, put up funds this year. Private sponsors will be sounded out next year; the league may even go national. It might not work, it might be too ambitious, even if an old law of Pakistan is to never bet against Latif. But Latif is highlighting a way forward, by looking to invest locally in order to buffer for the hard days ahead. At the KCL, cricket was far from dead. In fact it has not felt more alive in the last year.
Just days after the attack last year, the PCB got into a slanging match with one of the men caught in it, Chris Broad, accusing him of lying about security being lax. The PCB chairman claimed there hadn't been a security lapse. By March 9, Butt was saying teams would tour Pakistan again in six to nine months.
It is almost needless to add that no one was arrested, no one was blamed for it and no one was sacked; Wasim Bari, who was the board's director, HR and administration, and thus involved in the security, even got promoted to COO. Even after it later emerged that the PCB wanted the Test to be played in Karachi not Lahore because of security concerns in Punjab, no one got it.
When such depths have been trodden, little brightness can emerge. Admittedly, there is little the board can do about attracting teams to Pakistan currently. The security situation in the country is not in their hands, and now even Karachi has been hit, leaving no major metro untouched; but while physical isolation is unavoidable, spiritual isolation is not.
Yet no administration has lower stock in international cricket than this PCB one. If they are not openly disliked, they are laughed at and avoided. Only the ECB has helped them out and the English board will probably benefit more from that arrangement, but which other board has? Where is Pakistan in the next FTP? Nowhere.
How could it be any other way, given how they have acted? The board has systematically gone about squandering what could've been genuine sympathy and help after Lahore. The legal fight with the ICC over the 2011 World Cup was wholly unnecessary. In hindsight the PCB will argue that the money they got at the end of it was needed, but there were ways of obtaining that diplomatically, without pissing off your neighbours by trying to piss on their parades. No favours will come soon from India, Sri Lanka or Bangladesh, not with Butt in charge.
Some sympathy may well be due over the exclusion of players from the IPL this season. The board was only looking after its players in trying to ensure they could take part. The IPL, the franchises, Lalit Modi, the Indian government - apparently none of them stiffed the players, but someone surely did. But even that sympathy was lost over the decision to snub the Champions League. This tournament is not organised solely by the BCCI; there are two other boards involved. It might not be played in India this year. It has seven of the world's top nine nations participating in it. Bangladesh is the only other Test-playing country with no representative in it.
Here was a chance to again reinforce Pakistan's presence on a global stage, to make the statement that they are alive, well and part of this new world of cricket. Here was a chance to lobby CA and CSA, the two other bodies behind the league, maybe try and form some alliances. But speaking to senior officials in the board over the last few weeks, it was apparent few of them even knew what the tournament is, what it entails, who it is run by, what opportunities it offers. So Butt refused, citing the IPL snub as the primary reason. Here is further proof, if needed, that this administration knows nothing of the way the world of cricket is currently operating.
There also seems little will in their interactions with the ICC task force set up to help them cope with the loss of international cricket at home. At the first meeting in December, one member of the force said the board was more interested in talking about how much money they were losing rather than in discussing ways in which that could be lessened. The PCB's financial plight is desperate and not all of it is their fault. But what idea have they produced to try and overcome that? In one year, what scheme have they devised to fight this other than to crib about it? If Javed Miandad is to be believed, a West Indian XI of former and current players had almost agreed to come to Pakistan for a series of matches, only for the board's apathy to pole-axe it. What a coup that could have been.
From any viewpoint, any angle or perspective, Butt's board has been the worst equipped to deal with the fallout of Lahore.
Understandably, given the madness of those days, the immediate concerns were extreme ones: Cricket might die in the country. Kids would become terrorists if not cricketers. At a distance now, the worries are not quite so exacerbated. If there is one thing Pakistan and Pakistanis do exceedingly well, it is to deal with the aftermath of terror and suicide bombings.
We adjust. Sure, there is mayhem and insanity in the aftermath, but after a while life goes on as it must. Expectations are adjusted, scaled back, but things move on. It can seem cold and numbing to the outsider but it is an automatic survival mechanism, a means to cope. In more fashionable countries and cities it is called resilience.
In that sense, the death of cricket in Pakistan seems an overblown concept. It will not die here, just as the country will not die; it will take, in fact, the demise of the country to take cricket down, so much a part of the identity one is of the other. Neither will a lack of cricket lead kids to terror, for there are many, many other factors that go into that process. Like life, cricket here has always adjusted; tape ball cricket in streets is but one example.
What of those, the question is often asked, who will be deprived of watching cricket in stadiums? Well, counting heads at a ground has long ceased to be an effective method of measuring the depth of our involvement with cricket, especially in bigger cities, where the experience long ago moved to TV. Smaller cities like Faisalabad are the only ones where stadiums could be filled anyway, so what effect a lack of cricket will have on fans who weren't turning up to watch at most stadiums anyway is not fully known.
A cursory visit to parks, maidans, neighbourhood streets, to teashops, to people's lounges and drawing rooms, will reveal that cricket still means as much to the Pakistani as it ever did. Probably the Sydney Test loss did more to put people off the game, and the reaction to that loss, overheated as it was, in a perverse way was a heartening sign. People cared still, ever more strongly, about the game.
International cricket will not be here for a while, that has mostly been accepted, and if it hasn't then it must be. The myth that cricket would never be attacked was, in retrospect, a particularly fragile one; after all, why wouldn't militants hit cricket as a target? There are few better ways to attract attention in Pakistan.
The last decade here has been scarred by security-related pullouts anyway, and people have slowly adjusted to that reality. Some can still remember that it has been better than the sixties, when even less was played here, and Pakistan recovered from that admirably in the following decade. All is not lost.
That is not to say, however, that this might not change. For cricket to be deeply shaken, the very character of the country will have to change, and lord knows the one thing this war on terror may well eventually do, if it goes on long enough, is change that very thing.
On the off chance that you arrived in Karachi this week, you would struggle to find out that the PCB's most popular, financially lucrative domestic tournament was underway in the city and that all the country's top stars were playing in the city. If you had come a week ago, you'd very much know the KCL was happening, even if only a few of Karachi's top stars played in the league.
On TV, on billboards, in newspapers, on most people's tongues, the KCL was a masterpiece of the hard sell: direct, localised marketing. The KCL proved that crowds in Pakistan are very much like crowds anywhere else in the cricket-playing world: give them Twenty20 cricket, in the evenings when they are free, with some lights, noise and music and they will flock. Let them know it is happening and they will come, even if there are not so many big names.
Mostly, the KCL proved that if you have the will, vision and connections - Latif being so close to the previous city government helped him immensely - then few things are impossible in this land. Few people are as well-connected as a PCB chairman, given that they are a direct appointment of the President of Pakistan, and yet how under-utilised that connection - ill-advised as it is - remains. Better to scrap the appointment system altogether, avoid the sports ministry and corporatise the whole thing.
The KCL will not pull Pakistan cricket from its current predicament, not overnight anyway. But it shows a way. Other than the production of Umar Akmal and Mohammad Aamer and another successful U19 side, it is the most emphatic sign that cricket is alive and breathing here. Cricket can survive, and possibly even thrive, until the rest of the country sorts itself out, the KCL says. You just have to know how. Rest assured, it will not be this abomination of an administration that takes note.
Osman Samiuddin is Pakistan editor of Cricinfo